Tuesday, March 3, 2015, environmentalists took to the roads in protest against the Colombo Port City Project. One of the many projects of the Rajapaksa government and the one that has been used freely by President Sirisena’s election campaign days, the project is planned on 252 hectares of reclaimed land in Colombo. This land (if the project is carried as per plan) will include shopping areas, a water sports area, a mini golf course, hotels as well as a Formula One track.
The project by China Communications Construction Co Ltd would also create the way for a 3.25 kilometre-long breakwater and a large internal artificial canal in the city. The work on the project commenced on September 17, 2014. The City is expected to cover an area of 5.2 million square metres and has the capacity to hold 160,000 people.
Permission for project
Information available provides that the approval for the project was granted by the Standing Cabinet Appointed Review Committee (SCARC). The Coast Conservation and Coast Resources Management Department has issued the final approval for the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) pertaining to the Port City Development Project in October 2014.
In addition to this, an Environmental Management Plan (EMP) has also been submitted by China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), as per the requirements of the EIA, and has been approved by the Coast Conservation and Coast Resources Management Department in December 2014. However, it is argued that this EIA report is not abiding by the required standards and is only for the reclaimed area. It is also alleged that it does not reflect the amount of resources such as sand, rock that is needed to fill the area nor an explanation as to where these resources will be found.
While it is repeatedly stated that there has been an EIA process, which allowed for the commencement of work on the project, what has been not highlighted is the fact that there is a lot of information which has not been made public. Further, there has not been enough information for public participation, form of active engagement of the public.
The EIA process is laid down under the National Environment Act No.56 of 1988, amended in the year 2000 as Act No.53. It is further prescribed in the Gazette No. 772/22 of 24.06.1993. The process includes the steps of the project proponent submitting preliminary information to the Central Environment Authority (CEA), which would then decide whether the project could be carried out with an Initial Environment Examination (IEE) or whether there is need for a further EIA. For projects underdoing this process, there is also a mandated 30 days for public consultations requiring the project proponent to respond, before the approval is granted. However, whether this requisite has been satisfied concerning the Port City Project remains ambiguous.
Another addition to the doubts of the validity of the EIA is based on the data which vary. There are further allegations that the report covers only 300 acres, whereas the port city expands to over 500 acres. The project is also deemed to create issues to marine biodiversity, which will be impacted by the rock blasts as well as the large construction activities carried out.
In addition to this, there is also a large amount of water needed for the construction on a daily basis, which amounts to around 1,000 cubic meters of water per day. However, where the water will be provided from also remains unanswered.
Threat to sustainable development
While the world speaks of sustainable development goals, which need to satisfy the three pillars of social, economic and environmental development, the Colombo Port City project seems a blatant violation of the concept. Articles 27(14) and 28(f) of the 1978 Constitution could be interpreted as enshrining the principle of sustainable development in its Directive Principles of State Policy and Fundamental Duties. These impose duties on the state as well as every individual to protect the environment [Articles 27(14) and 28(f)].
Further, in the Eppawala Phosphate Mining case, [Bulankulama v. Secretary, Ministry of Industrial Development (2000) 3 Sri. L.R. 243], it was stated that while international legal principles are not legally binding in Sri Lanka’s dualist legal regime and are regarded merely as ‘soft law’, as a Member of the United Nations, they could hardly be ignored by Sri Lanka.
The prevalent legal regime also provides that environmental protection needs t o be considered as an integral part of the development process to achieve sustainable development. However, the environmental impacts of the project highlight that these principles for sustainable development have been ignored when adopting the Port City Project.
Environmentalists claim that the proposed project, if done without a proper assessment, will adversely impact the western coastal line including Panadura, Angulana, Mount Lavinia, Uswetakeyyawa and Negombo. This is due to the filling of the sea area that would lead to coastal erosion, altering the marine biodiversity.
The sand, rock and debris dumped into the sea would also impact the natural coral formations, weeds in the seabed leading also to a depletion of mangrove coastal areas as well as sea grass habitats.
Further, doubts exist whether there is enough sand in offshore deposits to satisfy the need for reclaiming land. And concern has been raised on the need for a study to evaluate the impacts on the marine life due to the exaction of sand.
In addition to this, there are also other environmental threats. One being the pollution of air which the project would create, sweeping pollution to the Colombo city through the sea breeze, as well as threats on resources such as water due to the large supply of water needed for the construction (does the Kelani basin have the capacity to support this?) as well as the supply for energy needs. Where would the large energy supply needed for construction come from?
Energy needs for the project
The government on its path to an energy secure Sri Lanka is shifting to a huge project needing a grand supply of energy, which would necessarily be able to be fulfilled with the current energy supply. While we need more energy supplies that are not fossil fuel emitting (despite the coal power plants, which generate energy for the country at present) a shift to a large project such as the Port City Project would require an immense supply of energy for its construction work, as well as its maintenance when finalised.
The presidential manifesto of President Sirisena highlights a phasing out of fossil fuels and leading towards a renewable energy-based energy security. Would this resolution of the new government be compatible with the energy needs stemming from the project? Has there also been an evaluation of the emissions created due to the project and how much fossil fuel will be used for this project impacting the already serious situation of global warming? Access to information on development projects
Another key deliverable promised by President Sirisena’s election manifesto is the access to information on development projects. Information on the Port City Project remains ambiguous. It is not clear whether the cost provided as US $ 15 billion is only the cost of reclaiming the land or whether it encompasses the cost of construction of utilities and buildings as well. This is not the only remaining doubt. The figures for the extent of land to be reclaimed are also featured differently. There is clarity needed on the numbers and the public needs to be provided access to this data.
Access to information to the public is at the heart of the EIA process as well. Upon receiving the EIA report, the project approving agency is required to publish a notice in the Gazette and in one national newspaper published daily in the Sinhala, Tamil and English languages. This is to facilitate the public to make written comments within 30 days if there are concerns regarding the proposed project.
The level of public participation and access to information to the public regarding the port city project remains unclear. In the Water’s Edge case (Sugathapala Mendis and Others v. C B Kumaratunga and Others, SC (FR) 352/2007, Supreme Court Minutes 8th October 2008), it was further noted that “the mere fact that the various environmental authorities said the project could be done, does not in itself suggest that it should have been done. Expert committee and conflict of interest
A Cabinet Sub Committee headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has been appointed in order to address the concerns raised about the project. The committee is to decide on the continuation of the project after studying a report which will be prepared by an independent expert committee. The expert committee is headed by Ajith de Costa.
Foul play in the expert committee is already highlighted by environmentalists. While not contesting the ability of the experts, there is concern based on the conflict of interest of one of the members of the committee. This concerns the appointment of a Moratuwa University professor who is also claimed to be a consultant to CCCC, the project proponent of the Colombo Port City. If what the environmentalists claim is grounded, then this would be a conflict of interest whereby an individual is linked to the body on which an assessment is conducted. It is further alleged that this professor was also the team leader of the EIA, of which the validity is challenged.
Whither election promises?
One of the promises made by the new president during the elections has been to address the concerns raised over the US $ 1.5 billion China-financed Colombo Port City Project. One month into the project, one wonders whether the promises shall be kept or broken. The promise by the president was due to protests by environmental lobbies and people of Negombo, which demanded the abolition of the Colombo Port City Project.Many nature groups have already handed over a petition to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) calling to put a stop to the project based on the human rights violations caused by it.
The petitioners included environmental groups, fisheries organisations as well as religious representatives. The petition was filed by the Sri Lanka Nature Group, Environment Conservation Trust and Centre for Environment Studies representing environmental groups, trade union for fisher folk representing the fisheries associations, Movement for National Agriculture Land Reform and Mothers and Daughters of Sri Lanka representing the civil society and religious representatives.